WASHINGTON -- President Bush said yesterday it would be in Kuwait's interest to grant fair trials to everyone, but voiced sympathy for the emirate's treatment of alleged collaborators given the brutality of Iraq's occupation.
His comments came as the Bush administration did a same day about-face and said it was concerned about charges that Kuwaiti trials of accused Iraqi collaborators fell short of due process.
The Bush administration's initial response defended the Kuwait military justice system used to try alleged collaborators. White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said unspecified "other factors" contributed to the 15-year sentence meted out to an Iraqi charged with wearing a Saddam Hussein T-shirt.
"Overall, they have been very responsive to our concerns about the way the system has been operated," Mr. Fitzwater said.
But late yesterday, the State Department said it was "concerned by allegations that due process may not have been fully observed."
"Claims by defense attorneys that some defendants were not allowed access to counsel before the trial, or to see their accusers, cross-examine witnesses, or know the charges against them in advance raise questions about the procedures under which these trials are being held," the department said in a statement.
"The same is true about claims by some defendants that they were coerced into confessing to crimes they did not commit."
Mr. Bush said he tried to put himself in the place of Kuwaiti citizens who had been brutalized by Saddam Hussein's forces. He said he could understand their bitterness, given that Kuwait had been raped and pillaged in an "unconscionable way."
But he said it was in Kuwait's "interest" to extend a fair trial to everyone and to show compassion despite the outrages it faced during the occupation. The State Department statement said that before the trials started, "we stressed to the government of Kuwait the importance of respect for human rights and principles of due process in addressing allegations of collaboration and abuses during the Iraqi occupation. This includes giving defendants effective right to counsel and to present and have witnesses cross-examined."
The trials followed repeated accounts of brutality by Kuwaiti vigilantes and security forces toward suspected collaborators, particularly Palestinians.
An administration official, speaking yesterday afternoon on condition of anonymity, said the Kuwaiti justice system had always "left something to be desired" but added: "We don't expect, nor can we ask, people to apply American standards."